Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Let us consider safe and sanitary homeless camps. Robin Miller of Bradenton recently wrote a thoughtful post about one approach to homelessness. Readers of “Sarasota Speaks” may already have encountered his post. The entire article may be found here: http://www.roblimo.com/node/192 I asked Robin for permission to excerpt portions for this blog, and it was kindly granted. What follows is from Robin:

Homeless shelters are chronically underfunded and almost always overcrowded, especially in the winter. Remember, shelters aren’t just there for the “visible homeless” — the booze-smelling panhandlers who bother us in the supermarket parking lot — but also for families and non-boozing singles who have been hit with high medical bills or lost their jobs, and because they had no money (or on a landlord’s whim) got evicted from their homes and couldn’t find someplace else they could afford to rent.

Some municipalities rent hotel or motel rooms to house homeless when their shelters are full. This is a hugely expensive short-term solution to a long-term (and growing) problem. My solution is simpler and cheaper: Licensed, legal homeless camps. The reality is that homeless camps are the wave of the future. We are going to have more of them, so we might as well have clean, decent ones with toilets, showers, and electricity.

Except they don’t need to be “homeless” camps, just campgrounds where anyone is free to stay as long as they pay minimal rent and/or help maintain the place.
Campgrounds are far cheaper to run than indoor shelters. The same $10,000 that might only help a dozen people stay in a homeless shelter for a month might help 100 or more “live rough” in tents, but with water, electricity, and showers available, along with simple firepits and lanais where they could cook without burning down their tents. A $25/week, $100/month tent campground would be the perfect place to live for someone who is truly serious about going to school or saving up for a monthly (instead of weekly) apartment or who wants to set aside enough money to eventually buy a house. It could be a haven for a poet who wants to devote full-time to her writing and is willing to put up with crude living conditions in exchange for a chance to live for six months on a few thousand dollars.

Naturally, this kind of living situation wouldn’t work well in Maine or Michigan. People would die there in the winter. But I live in Florida, where simple, outdoor-based living is feasible (if not necessarily comfortable) year-round.
A modern tent is nearly as comfortable as many of the shacks early settlers here built. And what about trailers? As in all those Katrina-surplus FEMA trailers? Wouldn’t they be good enough for rock-bottom housing? I could live in one and get by. Even my wife could, if she really had to. We’ve discussed all this, and have decided that while we really like our comfortable house and two cars, we could survive life in a camp trailer or tent — and still find many moments of joy.
The thing is, this level of living is now illegal almost everywhere. A woman down south of us on Florida’s west coast was running a non-subsidized homeless shelter that was really just a fenced lot with some tents and junk trailers on it, and she got shut down over building code violations even though her beneficiaries were undoubtedly living better on her property than they had lived elsewhere.
So change the laws!

I suspect that many churches and social service groups would happily fund and run simple “homeless” campgrounds if such things were legal. I’m sure many church-run campgrounds would prohibit drinking and drugs on the property. Some might require attendance at religious services. As long as they weren’t receiving government money, why shouldn’t they set up whatever rules they like?
And if laws allowed, I’m sure some private operators might even open for-profit campgrounds — and make a go of them. 20 camping spaces per acre, each bringing in $100 per month or more, could pay a considerable mortgage. Even with a two-acre campground only half-full, that’s still $2000 per month, which is more than enough to build and maintain a simple place, especially if residents are required to pitch in a certain number of hours every month to keep the place tidy and secure.
The thing is, we have this dichotomy in our society: There is (duh) more money in building expensive houses than in building cheap ones. Ditto apartments. Hardly anyone is building new apartments that auto parts store clerks can afford to rent. And even as “regular” housing gets further out of reach for low-income workers almost every year, we are unwilling — as a society — to consider simple, low-cost alternative housing. Indeed, in many areas building codes have made it illegal to even try to build something bottom-rungers can afford.

We are going to have homeless people camping out, like it or not, and current real estate and employment trends mean we’ll have more of them doing it 10 years from now than today. The least we can do is make the “homeless” experience as clean and safe as we can, for as many people as possible. And that means legal camping, with rules and regulations designed to keep campsites clean and safe, instead of consigning our “homeless” to lives of filth and misery the way we do today.

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